Blank stares.That’s what I got when I told friends I was heading to New York for the primary purpose of spending two nights at the Whitby, a new British boutique hotel. It seems more intellectual pursuits guide their Big Apple travel decisions — a trip to Gotham to see the latest Met exhibition or to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall. But being a self-proclaimed hotel groupie, I have a soft spot for unique luxury hotel experiences; news of this whimsical escape from reality was compelling.
While it doesn’t have a massive “palm court” or grand open space, the Whitby has something better: imagination in every nook and cranny. We are greeted by a series of sophisticated alabaster sculptures, maybe eight feet tall, leading to the front desk. Other accessories catching our eye are more playful — and colorful. Woven into contemporary and classic patterned fabrics on walls, furnishings, window shades and artwork is a palette of reds, chartreuse, blues, greens.
Warning: This is not a hotel for monochromatic minimalists. If you’re an “everything beige” person, head to a big bland chain.
The Whitby vibe is artsy-craftsy meets high style, with enough ingenuity to stock an artist’s lair. A “real time” grandfather clock by international artist Maarten Baas keeps us amused in the lobby — a film of a man is inside the clock telling the time. Even the elevators offer visual treats. Boxed collages adorn outrageously painted elevator walls.
The 30-foot pewter bar is snapshot-perfect, too. With a nod to the English fishing village the hotel is named for, 50 large colorful baskets once used for collecting oysters, fish and potatoes or for selling flowers hang overhead. Each is tagged with info about its origin. Nearby, keeping a watchful eye on imbibers: a pair of carved wooden Hercules.
We wind our way, gaping, through the courtyard garden, drawing room and dining room. Every inch of space is adorned with more paintings, ceramics or glassware, displayed in lighted wall niches. There is a happy mélange of styles. American folk art, reproductions of 20th-century mosaics, porcelain pots of New York landmarks and, in the “honor bar,” a lamp base constructed of a towering collection of patterned china cups and saucers ask for our attention. (I feel like Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum could have had a say in the decorating.)
Our suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows open out to a large private terrace with jaw-dropping vistas of glittering glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Room furnishings are a blend of sophisticated warm tones with playful touches — a traditional record player sits atop a table along with a stack of records, inviting us to take a spin. The base of one lamp is a carved wooden dog. Drapery fringe is polished wooden balls. As they say, it’s all in the details. Every room and suite is different, no two are alike.
But it isn’t only the look that makes the Whitby special, it’s the service. At breakfast, gluten-free isn’t an afterthought, all eggs are cage-free and, when we ask for coffee, the friendly server immediately chirps, “Soy? Almond? Skim milk or cream?
The 86-room Whitby is a dream of Tim and Kit Kemp, owners of Firmdale Hotels, a small British luxury hotel group. Kit, a former textile designer, is the artistic decorator-collector. She’s even designed the hotel’s Wedgwood china and line of bath products called Rikrak. The Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo is their only other U.S. property. They’ve combined an art experience within a luxe hotel that’s a short walk to my favorites: Central Park, MoMA, Bergdorf’s, Tiffany’s and Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar.
I pause before checking out and think about what a civilized experience this has been, savoring art, gracious service and thoughtful food. As for those hoity-toity friends, the blank stares are gone, replaced by reservations for their next visit to the city that never sleeps.